The Pew Center published a remarkable poll Thursday. In 2002, Americans were split politically right down the middle. When asked, the percent of Americans who called themselves Republican (or leaning Republican) was virtually equal with the number identifying themselves as Democrat (or leaning Democratic). This has now changed dramatically. 50% of Americans now identify as a Democrat or leaning Democratic. 35% identify themselves as Republican or leaning Republican.
What happened? While a variety of factors contributed to the political shift, which was borne out in the 2006 elections, doubtless the largest factor is our War in Iraq. As I noted some time ago, the public has turned irretrievably against the war. Right or wrong, regardless of the long-term consequences, Americans are insistent that our involvement in this war must end. Consequently, when Republicans line up behind the President on Iraq, it only deepens the animosity of the public toward Republicans. By a nearly two-thirds majority, Americans now favor a withdrawal from Iraq by the end of 2008. Many would like us to leave sooner. A significant minority want us to leave immediately. The public sees that our armed forces are in the midst of a civil war. They did not sign up for this scenario in 2003. As we begin the fifth year of this unnecessary war, they simply want us out.
As we learned in Vietnam, it is much easier to invade a country than to get out of it. The House of Representatives made it clear yesterday that it wants to begin a process that gets our troops out of Iraq. The bill it passed calls for the withdrawal of most forces by September 2008. The President has promised to veto the bill should it come to his desk.
As a diarist on DailyKos noted yesterday, there is slim chance that there will be the votes in the Senate to pass something similar to the House bill, simply because the margin between parties is tighter. Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD) is incapacitated, and the allegedly Democratic senator from Connecticut, Joseph Lieberman, will certainly vote against a fixed timetable for withdrawal. However, one other thing is also certain: only Congress can appropriate the money for our Iraq involvement. With the money running out, failure to pass a funding bill would, by default, make it difficult to sustain our forces there.
It is not clear how such a scenario would play out politically. During the Gingrich Revolution in 1995, a similar tactic resulted in shutting down the government. This caused a huge backlash against the House Republicans. It eventually gave President Clinton the upper hand. In this case, no one is threatening to shut down the federal government, only to benignly stop explicit funding for the War in Iraq by not supporting it with appropriations. This would be spun as failing to support the troops. So most likely, what will happen will be a game of political chicken. My sense is that if the Congress holds firm, what will likely be agreed to is approval of stopgap funding. I believe Congress would ultimately agree to continue funding at present levels in Iraq for six months, to see if the “surge” will in fact work and to see how the political winds ultimately blow as the 2008 elections move closer. I do not see from a House and Senate conference a bill acceptable to the President that would also be supported by the House.
There are initial signs that the surge of troops in Baghdad is having a calming effect in the city. This is not too surprising, given that when the surge ends the number of troops in Iraq will be at an all time high. The mission in Baghdad will essentially be what it should have been four years ago. This may give Bush a temporary political boost. By itself, it will not solve the underlying political problem. There is slim evidence that Sunni and Shiite groups are prepared to make the political accommodations necessary for genuine peace. Just as worrisome, it is highly unlikely that the Iraqi army and police will become both united and a stabilizing force in the region. So perhaps some rough peace could temporarily be purchased in Baghdad at the cost of a sustained American occupation. In this event I suspect there will continue to be scattered acts of carnage. With the political problem unsolved, and with too many other forces who will simply not accept political accommodation, the violence will shift toward easier targets of opportunity. The choice will then be to continue an American occupation of Baghdad indefinitely in order to ensure a rough peace there, or withdraw. There is no proposal being considered to bring in the number of occupation forces necessary to secure the entire country. This would require a draft, and except for a few eccentrics in Congress, neither political party wants to go there.
One thing that will not change is the date of the 2008 elections. A more politically savvy Bush might be willing to cut his losses in Iraq near the end of the year in hopes that Republicans will benefit in the 2008 elections. This would be contrary to his stay the course rhetoric. However, if the surge falters later this year he could say, “We did the best we could, but the Iraqis have not stepped up to the plate.” The start of a withdrawal later this year and his initiative might provide cover and political benefits to the Republican Party going into 2008 (or at least limit their losses).
This is unlikely. Even if it happens, it would likely be of marginal benefit to Republicans. We can expect more yielding on Iraq from Republicans in Congress, particularly from Republican senators up for reelection in 2008. Ultimately, as elections approach the political dynamics favor the Democrats. For Iraq is unlikely to get much better. Consequently, it should get easier, not harder, to pass bills that require the withdrawal of our troops from Iraq.
Unless it moderates some key positions, the demographics look increasingly bad for the long-term prospects of the Republican Party. Like it or not, our nation is changing culturally, racially and generationally. Generations Y and Z are growing up in a culture where racial differences, sexual orientation and hot button issues like gay marriage are less important. They are passionate about issues like the environment. However, as they move toward becoming vested members of society, they too will feel the squeeze of the cost of living. Consequently, Republicans may eventually draw back some of these people on issues like taxation and the scope of government. In the short term, although history suggests otherwise, I see Congress becoming significantly bluer in the 2008 election. The president we elect depends more on the personalities of who is nominated. Providing that Republicans can nominate someone politically moderate like Rudy Giuliani, they might retain the White House. In any event, much of the traditional Republican agenda is likely to bite the dust. Their recent legacy of fiscal wreckage will be too fresh in our minds.
There is great potential for a savvy Democratic Party to rebuild its political base over the next few years. Democrats have learned that being out of power sucks. Historically they have not done a great job of consolidating their political power. There is some hope though that Democrats have learned the lesson. Both Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid seem to understand how to be effective leaders. How they navigate dicey issues like Iraq over the next year may determine how much the Democrats can increase their political power.
Republicans though should be afraid — very afraid. Standing on principle is all well and good. In this case standing on principle is likely to leave their party marginalized in a way not seen since 1976. Their party leaders would be wise to pressure Bush to get out of Iraq quickly. Otherwise, it is possible that none of them will live to see their party in the majority in Congress again.